Reincarnation among Ancient Slavs – A Journey to Navia and Back
Before we start, we need to settle one important thing. The concept of reincarnation was present among all Indo-European cultures until Christianisation. It also spread throughout Asia from ancient Indian territories after the Aryan conquest.
Medieval Christian sources, such as Thietmar, claimed that Slavs were practically atheists or even nihilists, as we would call it now, and believed that with the death of the material body, everything ends. Then, there are the much more reliable Arab and Jewish travelers, geographers etc. like Abu’l-Hasan’ Ali al-Mas’udi, who wrote that Slavic traditions, especially the ones related to death, are similar to those found with Hindus.
Some people claim that our ancestors were spiritually more sensitive, that they could see more and experience more, and that was one of the reasons why they were so radically religious. All cases of children remembering their previous lives are limited to six-year-olds because their brain start receiving too much new information afterwards and they simply forget all about it. Could it have been longer in the past? We may easily imagine that children who knew some facts, say, from their great grandparents’ lives and describe the time when the grandparents of their parents were children could strongly influence the beliefs of their family or even other people around them; but it should have been very common to become the source of belief for the biggest ethnic group in Europe (if we speak about Slavonics only). Yet it seems that the sources of this belief are much more “down to earth” as we study archaic traditional Slavonic songs.
Let us look at two songs from different regions of Poland. One of them tells the words of a woman sentenced to death. She asks to be spread on the field, so the flowers would grow on her ashes, and that the other girls would gather them while singing about her.
In the other song, we learn that “they will burn me to ashes, spread me on the field, flowers will grow from me and the family will cry after me”.
Both of them refer to the tradition of burning the bodies of the dead. The source of this tradition was the belief that the soul leaves the body in the moment of complete decomposition (which also explains the numerous beliefs in undead monsters). This view is known from the analysis of archaeological sites, but there is confirmation coming from Ibn Fadlan who wrote in a straightforward and simple way that “the bodies are burned so that the soul would get to the otherworld faster.” Since the earliest times when Indo-Europeans first started burning down parts of forests to create farming grounds, it was very easy to observe how one thing becomes another, how nature functions in cycles, and thus, the concept of reincarnation was just a matter of time.
After burning down the corpse, but before covering the ashes with ground, the family and friends of the deceased would have a party over the grave. The purpose of that was to give energy to the soul for its travel. Kosmas, who described pre-Christian Czech (Bohemian) traditions, wrote that when warriors would sacrifice an animal to a God, they were in fact giving its life essence – the blood – for the God to drink, and they would also eat the meat of the sacrificed animal. This form of dining with the God was a source of power for them. We also know that the Polish pagan priests (of the Lechites) would sometimes drink the blood sacrificed to a God to get closer to him and make the contact easier. This practice was known in Ancient Greece as well.
The party performed over the grave of the deceased was a bit different. The people participating in such a party would wear either the so-called “corpse-paint,” which was supposed to make them appear dead; or “demonic” masks. Painting one’s face is one of the oldest warrior rituals in the world. Initially, the purpose of this was to appear dead in the eyes of the enemy. There were two components to it – a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning. The practical purpose was to scare off the enemy, and as a symbol, it meant that the warrior is already dead in his head and that he had embraced death. However, in the case of funeral rites, it was simply a means of protection. The undead were the biggest group in Slavic bestiary. The participants wanted to help their friend or relative “pass over the river,” but they needed to protect themselves in case he would like to stay with them, so they pretended to be dead in order to do so. Vestiges of those traditions were present till quite recent times among Ukrainians, Hungarian Serbs, Bulgarians, and Slovaks.
One could ask why in the songs it is mentioned that someone “spread ashes on the field”. On the one hand, it may have been the poetic license of the author, but on the other hand, it might simply refer to the fact that graveyards were always made at some distance from the settlements. Often you had to cross a river to get there. For example, in the Mechlin stronghold, which was – according to the Slavic strategic tradition – on an island, the cemetery was next to the shore on the other side of the bridge, placed inside the continental defense lines.
Polabian and Pomeranian territories are full of rivers and lakes, but not all tribes lived in same environment. They were using the “sea” of grass or moss as a way to separate themselves from the cemetery. There always had to be a symbolic border between the living and the dead. Passing the water, grass or moss in those places was passing into the world of the dead. It made contacting the souls of their ancestors possible, or at least easier. Pomeranians were also sometimes burning bodies on boats, which was a custom also known in early Russ.
Drinking or narcotizing during the party had necromantic purposes. Teofilaktos Simokattes describes a funeral that Musokios, the king of Sclavines, made for his brother, where he drank till he lost consciousness. The reason for that was not necessarily grief or happiness that his kin would go to Navia, but it also could have been a way to stay in contact with him for a while longer or help him depart. Furthermore, death rituals were done cyclically. We cannot be sure whether it was a part of the cult of ancestors or more like making sure that the dead stayed dead.
In some regions, the custom was to make a fire on the graves, and put bread on it or even bathe the dead by spilling hot water on the grave. This was even more important in the places and times when the death rites were different and the bodies remained whole, for example, in kurghans. On the other hand of the spectrum, such as in the territories controlled by Charles the Great, the punishment for cremation of a body was decapitation, which only goes to show how Slavic this practice was considered.
According to some researchers like B.A. Uspienski, the Slavonic otherworld was called Wyraj, Raj and Irij, and it lay “behind the great water,” which was understood as the Milky Way. The entrance looked like a whirling water tunnel dragging everything inside. Together with the spirits of the dead, birds and snakes traveled there for winter. The returning birds and snakes in spring symbolized an incarnation of the souls of the ancestors into the new generations. This is also the source of the myth of a bird bringing a child to the parents, and snakes were sometimes treated as the helping spirits of the house.
When the beliefs evolved, the otherworld was split into heaven – Raj or Wyraj, and the underworld – Nawia/Navia. In Baltic languages, Nawia was called Vels, just like the Slavic God of underworld Veles/Wołos. The Slavic word Raj comes from Iranian ‘rayi‘ which means wealth and happiness. Birds were the souls of the people who went to Raj. Snakes, as chtonic creatures, represent the souls that went to the underworld – Nawia/Nav.
Boris Uspienski thinks that the split for the heaven and “hell” was a later Christian influence and that originally it had been one place. According to him, even in later times those two worlds were next to each other, separated only by the river of fire.
Artur Kowalik, in his monumental work on the Slavic cosmology, summarizes that the afterlife was seen as a regeneration of the soul in the archetypal world of primal earth (paradise) to gain strength for the lives to come. We should also note that this paradise had borders, which makes its role similar to that of the womb. Water in its shapelessness symbolizes a lack of definition and a hidden, unlimited potential. Because the journey on the road to the otherworld was traditionally referred to not only as the Road of Souls, but also the Road of (Heavenly) Army, we can’t be sure whether according to the ancient Slavic worldview the soul would lose its ego or not.
European conceptions of reincarnation were merely pointing to a very tribal nature of reincarnation. Souls seem to be enclosed in some kind of a “blood law,” which makes them reincarnate only within their family, clan or tribe. In addition, naming children after their ancestors is a tradition related to reincarnation.
In Buddhism, this is hidden under the euphemistic concept of family karma. The significance of these necromantic rituals for the living and the measures taken for protection from the returning dead seems to suggest that the deceased were believed to have had some kind of identity that sometimes made them stay on earth, and for example, try to live in their former house.
Although this tradition has been lost to some extent, there are still important remnants among South Slavs. However, the belief has been changed a little – if a person is not buried within 40 days of dying, or is buried improperly (analogous to not being cremated), that person was thought to have turned into the undead and risen to roam the earth and haunt all people nearby. I am, of course, talking about vampires.
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